Abstract Critical

Objectivity and Art

Written by Robin Greenwood

The science correspondent of the Guardian, Alok Jha, writing of the merits of the ‘scientific method’ of evidential and experimental assessment in scientific discovery in an article entitled ‘Acknowledging mistakes is key to advancement – and not just in science’ (18th November 2011), wrote this:

Uncertainty, error and doubt are all confounding factors in whatever method you use to get at the truth. Acknowledging it and developing methods against it has been absorbed into scientific thinking – the most consistently successful method humans have developed to discover truth – and it seems churlish not to learn that lesson for the rest of life too.’

And so what about art? By what methods does the artworld uphold claims of integrity, and counter the undermining of value by falsity and error, or even outright fraud? I don’t refer to the copying of artworks by forgers, which is but a small crime of a pecuniary nature, but allude to the production of paintings and sculptures that have only a negative contribution to those disciplines; works that undermine the coherence and confound the recognition, particularly for young people just beginning to look at art, of what is truly and properly visual; works that are gratuitous additions to the increasing excesses of conceptual and counterfeit art with overweening pretentions to significance. Who can still think that there is none of this going on in contemporary art? Who can still believe in the truthfulness of the artworld and its concomitant art-market? The winners at the moment are the most superficial of wheeler-dealers, who see contemporary art as a means to buck the laws on money-laundering and insider-trading. Well, it’s probably no more corrupt than late 19th century Paris, but its ubiquity and unaccountability makes for a virtual world-wide monoculture, an unchallengeable monopoly propagating poor values based upon downgraded and superficial subjectivity.

Where is our correspondingly objective ‘artistic method’? The irony here is that subjectivity – that is, the evaluation of deeply-held ‘feelings’ about our responses to art – is central to the objective appraisal of art’s real achievements. What is more, it is likely true to say that the same human emotional responses govern the supposedly more objective approach to science too; the scientific method perhaps depends equally upon feelings and hunches and leaps of imagination for its progression. This is not a contradiction; subjectivity and objectivity are in their proper form complementary. But in our refusal to acknowledge the objective side of looking at art, and our insistence upon the imperatives of feeling in each of us individually, we have no forum in which those feelings can be evaluated. All well and good, but some feelings about the world outside of ourselves – which includes both art and science – are deeper and truer than others; some individuals can access and articulate those deeper feelings more easily and effectively than others, and such people should be counted upon to provide insight. But we are now in the realms of pandering to everyone’s most puerile ability to interpret art – everyone from a five year-old to Alain de Botton can have their (equal) say in what art ‘means’ to them, without in the least paying attention to what is in front of their eyes; and most importantly, without having to test those feeling for authenticity in the spotlight of some sort of public scrutiny. There is no artistic equivalent of the peer review that takes place in the scientific world.

We need the means to discuss art as openly and as objectively as possible, and we need to discuss only the things about art that rightly belong in the public realm – what are the ‘facts’ of its appearance, what do they do, and how do they work together (if they do). The problem is that the kind of ‘logic’ we need to use to feed our argumentative discussions is a visual logic, based upon what we see, what the artwork actively ‘does’ and, yes, how it ‘feels’ – an example might be the perfect logic of a Cézanne passage of form, a ‘sequence-in-depth’, the achievement of unity from diversity, and the value of which is, as far as it is possible to be certain, an objective ‘fact’. The ‘testability’ required must have some such degree of objectivity, yet it needs to be nevertheless receptive to illusionistic qualities rather than literal truths, a ‘reality of illusion’, subject as this is to the vagaries of individual sensibility and proclivity. This makes for some difficulty; it is in truth a task for really good writers and critics, but in their wretched absence abstract artists must themselves make the best job they can of it. The truth about painting and sculpture is a moving target, and that is part and parcel of its value. This does not mean that we should give up on it. In science, they perhaps have a better accommodation of the ambiguity inherent in the ‘pursuit of truth’ than us artists do, in as much as any postulated theory cannot be considered properly scientific unless you can think of an experiment that could falsify it. Science is not a set of fixed facts, but a group of things that are considered ‘the least wrong’ at any moment in time; and thus always subject to revision and/or progression. Would that art were a little more like this, for in art we are forever resurrecting ideas that would be laughed out-of-court by a more objective artistic discourse. In abstract art, many bad ideas come back around again that have been played out at least once before. I don’t need to enumerate them; you can pick your own. Openly discussing the objective shortcomings of bad art should be seen as a necessity and a liberation, rather than the personal affront and embarrassment it usually gives rise to.

The hundred-year history of abstract art has promoted the worst excesses of subjective interpretation, in most cases wilfully encouraged or initiated by the artists themselves. That most seminal if protean movement of abstract art, Abstract Expressionism, was suffused with interpretive intimations of grandiosity and complexity quite beyond its rather modest achievements. As the degree of originality and form in the work deteriorated through the sixties and into the seventies (there are exceptions, of course), so the conceptual content increased – Conceptual Art is a direct consequence of Minimalism, and, bizarrely, it could be said that Minimalism is a direct consequence of the Abstract Expressionist desire for simplistic abstract art to embrace profound concepts way beyond its means (to the point of artistic Nihilism). If a few stripes can encompass profundity, why strive for anything more demanding or complex?

The rump of abstract art now, particularly contemporary abstract painting, seems for the most part (again, there are exceptions) content to acknowledge just how banal it really is, and in Provisionalism and Casualism has actively begun to revel in it (though these pseudo-movements secretly, one feels, still yearn to be acknowledged as profound manifestations of truths-to-something-or-other). It remains to be seen whether abstract art can really deliver profundity and sublimity, like the best of figurative painting, by becoming truly and profoundly original in the new complex form(s) that it invents for itself, the new unifications and reconciliations of extremes it can achieve, and the new meanings it can embody in so doing.

Robin Greenwood

January 2014






  1. John Pollard said…

    It is good to read something about the theory of looking and judging art that is both philosophical and very practical. Of course when you start talking about subjective/objective, reason/emotion, you are going to run into some well known philosophical problems but rather than chuck these concepts away I think it is best to think long and hard about what they mean and how we can use them in a way that helps with our own search for truths in art. I am, of course, assuming there is such a thing as ‘truth’.

    What makes up good arguments for truth, whether that is in the world of science, ethics or art? I’d argue for a notion of some kind of ‘co-creativity’ in exploring the creating/finding of ‘truth’, that is open to change and revision.

    Part of this process of making judgements, whether in science or art, involves a rigorous questioning and exploration (of self and others), and dialogue. I think it would be good to think more about how we all judge a work of art, specifically its visual quality. That is, a reflection on what we are thinking and feeling (phenomenological description?) as we look at a work of art. This may help us to understand ourselves more clearly and help challenge our own, and other’s, blind spots. But this is a demanding thing to ask as we have to be open about our subjective processes and leave open the possibility we are wrong on some points. This uncertainty is debilitating and anxiety provoking and why we all tend to fall into certainties.

    I don’t think I have the confidence in objective truth that Robin has: as if it is something that we could all grasp if only…… if only what? I wouldn’t either want to ban talking about ‘stuff’ outside of the work if it’s interesting and meaningful. It’s just that this ‘stuff’ shouldn’t impact too much on the judgment of visual quality.

    Although Robin mentions that science too depends upon “feelings and hunches and leaps of imagination for its progression” he doesn’t perhaps acknowledge that one main difference is in testability: there is something tangible, physical, open to questioning and retesting in the sciences that is quite different than judging a work of art. Taste comes to mind (in itself a distasteful concept) when judging art, but science?

    The last point I would question is that abstract art has not delivered the “profundity and sublimity ” that figurative painting has? Well, it has for me.

    Great essay.

  2. Terry Ryall said…

    As far as I’m aware there is no evidence that supports the view that Duchamp’s urinal was made for the specific purpose that it should be experienced as sculpture. It’s hard to imagine that such an objective was on his agenda. I’m not sure that Duchamp was ever really able to articulate the true nature of his ready-mades. He saw their purpose as presenting a challenge to prevailing tastes and orthodoxies and ‘Fountain’ and the general concept of the ready-made went on to become enormously influential-quite an achievement for what Alan Pocaro justifiably describes as a “stunt”.
    The merits or otherwise of his influence continue, in one form or another, to be a source of debate. I just wonder however whether it is a little too easy to dismiss Duchamp entirely as having no meaningful influence on the development of abstract sculpture. Much constructed abstract sculpture incorporates ready-made, often very physically and visually seductive components-bits of steel girders, machine parts, fabricators’ off-cuts etc. Surely Duchamp deserves at least some credit for making such work possible by expanding ideas about what sculpture can be in terms of its identity as an object (even if, as seems likely, that was never his intention). I appreciate the strong desire that Robin Greenwood and others now have to escape that ‘object-ness’ but perhaps it will come to be seen as an important and necessary stage in the evolution of abstract sculpture, an honourable part of its history.

  3. Patrick Jones said…

    Thank you Alan for getting us motivated to respond to your assertions.I was interested there for 5 minutes by your image of artists picking over the bones of a finished tradition.On a bad day,when it was pissing down and inspiration failed me ,Ill admit to having done that.Funnily enough Jack Bush[canada 55] always came to mind ,a graphic designers schematic assembly a temptation when real confidence in oneself,and the unifying love affair with the medium wavered.Its your view of Abstraction thats in Ikea.Mine is in the Sidney Janis collection at MOMA[Mondrian]and the Met[Pollock].The list is so enormous and full of such pleasure I wont even start.Except to say that the most exciting is in the Picasso Museum in Paris and the early cardboard guitars assembled with dress making pins,tender and revolutionary[Low relief].Painting is colour on a floating but taut picture plane,dealing with vision and alluding to experience .Sculpture exists in real apace.I dont do it so Ill leave those that do to describe it.Painting Abstractly is so fascinating and almost endlessly challenging that I see no end only the possibility of breaking through ones one limitations of vision and action.What Robin suggests and the Brancaster asserts is a new aesthetic ,freed from worn out constraints. I expect to be relieved of more baggage and start painting simpler ,more effective communications that are game changing in intention and effect.

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    Sorry Alan,but I thought you were just getting into something interesting when you ended the paragraph with “because its not 1955 anymore”.Thats a cop-out and goes along with being a ‘nominally” abstract painter.A rigorous cultural critique,which assailed the weakened position of current Abstraction,could do worse than look at political events since 1955 and the decline of real culture.Robin is right on the mark when he says “make your own culture”as its all that is left open to us and remarkably freeing.

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      Unsurprisingly, I have to disagree. I’m merely stating that in 2014 the prevailing cultural-aesthetic pressures of 1955 no longer exist. Abstract “art” is the flagship style in the decor section of your local Ikea. That’s not a cop-out, that’s reality.

      Part of contemporary abstraction’s problem is precisely the freedom you mention. When you are free to do anything absent any form of aesthetic pressures other than those which are self-imposed, your achievement by definition is lessened. What is it to be an individual in a society of individuals?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I’d make two points:

        Firstly, imagine an abstract art that in its scope and complexity has absolutely no connection with the derivative aesthetics and simplistic clichés you would find in Ikea-art, or indeed in 1950′s abstraction.

        Secondly, unless and until we can realise such a vision, we are not free at all, we are constrained; the freedom remains theoretical. But should we be able to accomplish such a thing, your contextualising would be dashed to pieces, along with those constraints.

        Well, it has begun; have a look at Mark Skilton’s sculpture on this site.

      • Alan Pocaro said…

        All the more reason to work towards a theory of art that recognizes it as a specific activity with parameters and limitations.

        I’d also speculate a way out of the current impasse is to address paint as a sculptural medium, which is not a new idea in an of itself, but provocative possibilities emerge when we look at works by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly or Alain Biltereyrst as painted sculpture rather than simply space-creating paintings.

        Additionally, having to deal with the distinct aesthetic pressures inherent in sculpture, as well as those of painting, may provide a critical shot in the arm to move work in more exciting directions.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        You just lost me there, Alan. Why do we need a theory? What could possibly be sculptural about paint? What’s good about those two very boring artists? What’s aesthetics (or aesthetic pressure, whatever that is) got to do with it?

        I await your 2000 word reply…

      • Robert Linsley said…

        Personally I’m not facing any impasse, and if one appears, am pretty confident I can get past it.

      • Alan Pocaro said…

        We are moving slightly off topic here, but a theory of art is important for combating the “mission creep” in which everything and anything is regarded as either art or an artistic practice. A theory of art sets limitations, which, as I’ve said in previous comments, is required for creative friction. Limitations also allow for qualitative analysis.

        A theory of art need not be complex or overly intellectual, it can be as simple as recognizing that art is a material phenomenon based on the artist’s physical relationship with the world. Additionally it might express that a painting in its broadest sense is the establishment of credible space on a two-dimensional surface, while sculpture exists in the third dimension.

        Paint is merely one of a panoply of materials an artist might choose to work with and as such can be used as a sculptural medium. See images of Pamela DeCoker’s “Paint Solo” as an example of an artist using paint in this way.

        Robert- I think its naive not to recognize that contemporary abstraction is at an impasse. Abstraction’s leading achievements have always been formal, and as I said in my previous comment, there are no formal battles left to be won. Contemporary abstract painters are either A: re-solving previously solved problems of space, or B: probing at the extreme limitations of what we are willing to experience as pictorial space -hence provisional-casualism.

        I’m suggesting that by embracing sculptural problems, how works engage and transform actual space, in addition to 2-dimensional problems, the establishment of illusory space, painters might find a way to move their work into productive new directions rather than being content to retread well-worn avenues.

        That’s about 250 words if you’re keeping track Robin…:)

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Well, I looked up Pamela Decoker and she appears to have cast the inside of some paper cups and arranged them on a shelf. So what’s not conceptual crap about that? It has zero to do with sculpture.

        I think we are way past the point of attempting to rescue the situation by defining what is and what is not art. It’s all art. Even paper cups on a shelf. A defining theory of art is useless here, especially if you can use it to defend really bad art. Paper cups on a shelf are comfortably within what we understand to be modern art, even though they are crap. Surely any qualitative analysis should be looking for stuff that breaks limitations.

      • Alan Pocaro said…

        Robin, whether or not we like Decoker’s work is irrelevant. I only mentioned it as an example of an artist using paint as a sculptural medium. Can we not agree that casting objects has a long history as a sculptural practice?

        Additionally, I think part of the quality problem in contemporary art is precisely as a result of our unwillingness to re-litigate the ‘what is art” question. I for one refuse to concede that some 20th century conceptualist prankster answered that question once and for all.

        Finally, no qualitative analysis can occur without prescribed limitations. How can we discuss the formal and conceptual beauty of a haiku if we dismiss that, as a specific form of poetry, a haiku has limitations?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Lots of interesting questions there Alan. We in fact cannot agree about much, it seems. Casting has only a peripheral role in sculpture, even figurative, being a commercial reproductive technique with no bearing on content. So far as I can see, it has no role at all in abstract sculpture and in the case of Decoker is being used as a conceptual affectation. What’s more, a judgement about the VALUES of Decoker’s work, good or bad, is of the essence in any discussion about how art goes forward. I repeat, I see no way for paint in itself to address anything serious in sculpture.

        As to the question of what is and is not art, I do think it is at best unproductive and at worst regressive, often used by people who want to take art backwards. A much more pertinent way forward is to look at an individual work and make a value judgement – as objectively as possible – about its contribution of serious and innovative content to the disciplines of either painting or sculpture. So, in this case, I would say Decoker’s contribution to sculpture is zero. Mixing disciplines is unhelpful.

        As for limitations, do tell me – what are the limitations of abstract sculpture? There are none, other than perhaps a physical one of sitting on the floor under gravity. All other limitations are of our own making and are to be overcome. But that does not in the least proscribe us from discussing the sculptural content in terms of its actual visual/physical activity, and so making our value judgements.

      • Sam said…

        Robin – it does seem to me that you are putting limits on sculpture, that are not to do with quality i.e – ‘it has zero to do with sculpture’ on those cups, or taking aim at the whole history of sculpture with ‘casting only has a periphery role’; or saying paint has nothing to do with sculpture. You can accept the cups as art, but not as sculpture. So there is a limit somewhere, isn’t there? And one that is close to Alan’s “it might express that a painting in its broadest sense is the establishment of credible space on a two-dimensional surface, while sculpture exists in the third dimension.”

        I agree with both of you that limits are a good thing. Reminds me a bit of Caro’s ‘sculpture can be anything, but not anything can be sculpture’.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        From your point of view one might argue that everything one could think of, including bacon sandwiches and astrology, could have a bearing upon sculpture. That, to re-inforce the point of my essay, would be a very subjective notion about sculpture. For the sake of any sensible discussion, and any attempt at an objective qualitative value judgement, we may as well discard those notions, along with paper cups and paint. That still does not limit or define what might be achieved in abstract sculpture when it deals with and extends the core characteristics of that discipline.

      • Sam said…

        there are no limitations on sculpture apart from the limitations of sculpture?

      • Peter Stott said…

        Everything is not art, but as a component part of the visual field, everything has pictorial value, some geometric capacity to be seen as something else, something other, what other, though?

        The theory: “There is a transcendental order”
        The underpinning logic: 2D shape can represent 3D form
        The problem: ‘Can’t see the transcendental order, cos it’s hidden by the appearance, face value of things.
        The reason:’Catch 22- the things that allow for the transcendental order are the very same things stopping one from seeing the vision”

        In that sense whether it be sculpture or painting, it’s the same pictorial problem.

        The art: ‘Whatever Dastardly & Mutley come up with to try and beat God.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I couldn’t put it better myself, Sam. Let’s remind ourselves of where we started. Alan suggested that to attempt progress in abstract art through a more objective appraisal of values is a fool’s errand. I think differently, in as much as if we objectively assess individual works as to their sculptural achievement, things like the paper cups will naturally fall away and out of our definition of sculpture altogether. So the definition of what is and what is not sculpture can change according to what is made. You may want to include the paper cups within that definition, by ‘pre-defining’ what it is, but once you compare them with something that genuinely makes a serious constribution to sculpture, you will see that they do not belong there.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        …and to continue the analogy with science, changing base metal into gold and thinking about billiard balls colliding have both at some time in history been central to the science of physics – but no longer. Now it is defined by complex maths and a doughnut ring under the Alps.

        Sculpture likewise redefines itself as is develops (progresses?); it is, as I say, a moving target. It may have limits, but they are not fixed. I really don’t like the idea of trying to define, for example, three-dimensions, I’d rather stick to trying to recognise it when I see it (and indeed, trying to make it).

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        …and what’s more, it’s imperative that we do make that value judgement and collectively dismiss the idea of paint-casts of paper cups from the canon of sculpture (if it was ever in, in any sensible person’s view) in much the same way we have now cast out from objective science the idea that the sun goes round the earth. If we cannot even do that, we will indeed be on a fool’s errand.

        You are free, of course, to continue to believe in such rubbish…

      • Alan Pocaro said…

        Robin, your position is inconsistent. On one hand, you claim that there are no limitations to abstract sculpture and on the other, you freely dismiss plainly 3 dimensional objects creating using a sculptural process as having nothing to do with sculpture. You say that arguing about what is and what is not art is “regressive” and yet your doing the very thing by dismissing sculptural work as having nothing to do with sculpture. Which is it?

        The fact that we’ve continued this discussion for days is indicative of the fact that there are limitations to what reasonable people should consider sculpture and without an understanding of those limits we cannot have a credible objective analysis of anything. Otherwise it will always boil down to “its sculpture and good because I say it is.” Whats objective about that?

        I’ll posit that any 3 dimensional object composed of sufficiently transformed materials that alters perceivable space in three dimensions, created for the express purpose of being experienced as sculpture, is sculpture. That excludes ham sandwiches and found objects, but includes cast paint paper cups. Now we that we have some limitations on what we consider sculpture, we can argue about merit, otherwise I don’t see how we can get anywhere near objectivity.

        I am thoroughly enjoying this exchange by the way.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I see no inconsistency. In fact, I think I have a coherent set of values. The outward limitations of abstract sculpture are unknowable and the present circumstances of how we define sculpture are dependent upon what is being made by the best practitioners. We might today define what sculpture is, and tomorrow Joe Bloggs will make something that redefines it. This happens in science, and should happen in art, but it cannot redefine it by parachuting in a daft idea. The cast paper cups are a bonkers and useless contribution to the debate, no better than a sandwich or anything else. They are only marginally and literally three-dimensional, like any other literal object in the world (or like any ‘readymade’ or assemblage of found objects.) They have absolutely nothing whatsoever to say about the condition of three-dimensionality, no sculptural content, no visual/physical activity. Compare them with, say, Mark Skilton’s recent sculpture, which are examples of the most serious contribution to the discipline in recent times, and it becomes clear. That comparison is objectively demonstrable, even hypothetically here on line, since the gulf in sculptural achievement is so huge – so the paper cups are ruled out, along with sandwiches etc., as irrelevances.

        Creating ‘for the express purpose of being experienced as sculpture’ is completely meaningless. We’ve had a bellyful of people just simply naming what they do – any object – as ‘sculpture’. As for the other conditions you posit, just about any household object would fulfil those at least as fully as cast paper cups. To argue your case, you would have to prove that the cast paper cups have more intrinsic value than the sandwich, or perhaps, more than actual paper cups, from which they have no discernible difference. I challenge you to do that.

    • Alan Pocaro said…

      There is nothing meaningless about the conditions for sculpture that I’ve outlined. To the contrary, I’m trying to advance a coherent framework that proscribes the limitations of sculpture which would enable the objective analysis you seek. If you you have another look at what I’ve written, you’ll see it excludes a great many things, while allowing for nearly unlimited possibilities within the limitations of the framework.

      I’m not going to enumerate them all here but please note that “created for the expressed purpose of being experienced as sculpture” basically rules out any unmodified object manufactured for a utilitarian purpose other than specific contemplation by a human being as art. Urinals? out. Sandwiches? Out. Paper Cups? Out.

      However, my thesis does not preclude an artist from using those objects as raw material, provided that they are “sufficiently transformed” in the creation of a recognizably new form. Have a look at Tara Donovan’s 2003 “Untitled (Styrofoam Cups)” It has a great deal to say about the condition of three-dimensionality, sculptural content, and visual/physical activity. And yet its made from cups. I’ve seen several shows of her work, they’re quite remarkable.

      Now, DeCoker’s work may not rise to the level of Skilton’s or Donovan’s in terms of complexity, but it still fulfills the basic preconditions I’ve outline for sculpture. It is composed of a thoroughly transformed material which adopts a new form, in this case, acrylic paint. It inhabits, transforms, and is arranged to engage with actual space, and it’s created for the specific purpose that it be experienced as sculpture.

      I’m not certain how you could conflate that with a food-product created for the exclusive purpose of satiating a biological need/desire. DeCoker’s cast paper cups have as much intrinsic value relative to food as any other work of art,including Skilton’s, because fundamentally they are completely different.

      Now where’s that bacon butty…….?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        To begin, rather pedantically: you seem to have missed the phrase “As for the other conditions you posit…” in my last paragraph. Never mind.

        So. Onward and upward. To ceilings, in fact, made of Styrofoam cups – do you have a thing about cups? No, Tara Donovan is not a contributor to the ongoing debate which is sculpture; she appears to make work that might at a stretch be classed as interior design. There is an exhibition opening soon at the RA in London, “Sensing Spaces”, which comprises installations by architects, which would make for a meaningful comparison to the Donovan work you cite. Her work modifies the ceiling of the gallery. It does, I suppose, look like a rather pleasant and unusual use of cups, if you like that sort of thing (I don’t), but you could not meaningfully compare and contrast it, or discuss it, in relation to any serious piece of sculpture, like say a Rodin, an African carving or a Mark Skilton. It is not, as you claim, three-dimensional (it is really a modulated 2-D surface), and nor does it have any sculptural content that I can discern. That doesn’t stop it being an interesting and unusual experience (again, if you like that sort of thing) but it does rule it out of any serious discussion about sculpture – a discussion which is of far greater moment than any attempt you or I might make to concoct a definition for sculpture that will stand the actuality of what serious people make.

        Returning to the DeCoker, the fact that her cast cups fulfils your “basic preconditions” just goes to prove my last point, that any definition is more or less useless. The material, paint, is completely untransformed (into what form is the paint transformed? Into the shape of a paper cup? Mmm… big deal); it does not engage with space, actual or otherwise (it’s stuck on a shelf, for god’s sake); it most certainly does not create sculptural space or form (which I rather suspect you know little about, and that you, like many people, confuse abstract sculpture with objects); and though, as you say, it fulfils your precondition of being created “for the specific purpose that it be experienced as sculpture”, well, so what? So was Duchamp’s urinal. Now who is inconsistent?

      • Alan Pocaro said…

        Duchamp’s “Fountain” is an unmodified utilitarian object created for the exclusive purpose of receiving and disposing of urine. Turning it upside-down and placing it on pedestal does not meet the precondition that it be “sufficiently transformed”. The thesis I’ve outlined specifically excludes stunts like that, as it does any found or minimally altered object.

        I’d also like to mention that besides my description of Tara Donavan’s exhibition as “remarkable” I have never, in the course of this conversation, indicated whether or not I think any of the artists we’ve discussed are any good, of if like their work in any way. You seem to want to have an argument about taste, I’m trying to outline a practical limitation to a cultural-aesthetic framework for sculpture.

        Despite the good nature of this back-and-forth, the fact that we cannot agree upon the rather generous definintion I’ve proposed confirms my original assertion that it is a fool’s errand to think quality can be measured in any objective way absent shared cultural-aesthetic limitations and the concomitant pressures they exert upon an artist.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        I’m going to be pedantic again: how does a Styrofoam cup differ from the urinal? They are both readymades.

        You are right, though, we cannot agree, and I’m not much interested in a definition of sculpture that includes any old rubbish. It is important in my world to live by what you think is good, so my “definition” of sculpture focusses on what I think strongly contributes something positive to the discipline and then compares everything with that, including what other people think is good, provided those people know what they are talking about. It’s an endless debate, and I think of it, rightly or wrongly, as a quest for some degree of objectivity.

        But I think this bit of the debate goes nowhere. Many thanks, Alan, because it helped me work out stuff I hadn’t thought through to this extent before.

      • Alan Pocaro said…

        Really, the pleasure is all mine. I was just thinking about how nice it would be if the mainstream art publications eschewed their celebrity worship and engaged with issues this deeply. And then I caught myself: the “mainstream” art publications are dead; as is the hegemony of a few well placed talking heads in New York, L.A, London, Paris, et. al. The future belongs to sites like Abstract Critical and those willing to engage in the serious debate they foster.

        Until the next one.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Until the next one…

  5. davidapthomas said…

    Very thought provoking- but it seems that the in the glory days of abstract painting (and when were they? Malevich? Kandinsky? Mondrian? Newman? Reinhardt?)that the painting was driven as much by philosophical, spiritual and psycho-analytic necessity than by “friction” with representational art. As a representational painter who loves a lot of non-representational art and sees continuous echoes and fugues from one to the other, I’d say that it is the position of painting itself which is particularly weak, in comparison to its heyday as a vehicle of public discourse -say between 1850 to the 1960′s. That is not necessarily a terrible thing and continues to act as kind of ‘weak force’ in cultural debate.

  6. Alan Pocaro said…

    I love this essay, but I think it’s a fools errand to suggest that abstract art can progress and that an objective measure could assist in that progress. Perhaps more so than any previous historical style, abstraction is intimately interwoven with the time and culture that gave rise to it. As cultures change, so to do its art forms.

    Why is so much contemporary abstraction, from casualist to provisionalist painting, complete nonsense? Because the dominant cultural-aesthetic pressures of the early to mid-20th century, pressures which painters reacted strongly against in an effort to assert their own individuality and vision, simply no longer exist.

    The old gods of taste and quality are long dead, and there are no formal territories left to be won in the name of abstraction. Not only can it no longer “progress” but it is no longer capable of speaking with the same cultural power it did 60 years ago by virtue of the fact that it is not 1955 anymore.

    What we are witnessing with abstraction’s “annus mirabilis” is merely a mop-up operation in which various contemporary painters pick over the last edible remains of abstraction’s corpse in a desperate effort to squeeze out that meager bit of expression which might still exist. The novel formal configurations (which as often as not are studied bits of amateurishness) seen in such provisional work are tacit admissions of its own content-impotence.

    I say this as an unabashed lover of abstraction and as a nominally abstract painter, but the hard truth is that until cultural-aesthetic trends in the art-world and beyond turn against abstraction (giving us a creative friction to push against) and become significantly less permissive (which I don’t ever see happening) abstraction will only be an echo of its former glory.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Don’t blame the pathetic quality of lots of abstract stuff like Casualism on the culture (it is the culture), blame it on the complete lack of ambition – in fact, on a lack of understanding of what ambition in art means – on the part of the individual practitioners (and, as you say in your tweet, on the accompanying support for mediocrity).

      You might be one of them, being a “nominally” abstract painter. Take some responsibility for your own work. You are not at the mercy of the times. Make your own culture.

      • Alan Pocaro said…

        Ah, but I am not blaming the culture per se. I’m pointing to the productive role that cultural-aesthetic pressures play in the the assertion of individual expression, style, and content.

        I’m suggesting that relative to the conservative tastes and outlooks of the early to mid-20th century, we live in an anything goes era; the formerly productive pressures of the past no longer exist and thus are a chief reason that so much (but by no means all) contemporary abstraction is rubbish.

        Though you are correct when you say that the criticism is primarily leveled at painting, and breaks down somewhat when directed at sculpture.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Well, yes, we agree that despite the supposed liberality and freedom of our times, much of our art is very conservative in what it is comprised of, visually. But I think, like many people, like art historians, like cultural commentators, you over-contextualise the causes. Perhaps art is more ‘willed’ than that, by people who are just determined to change it? We have a long way to go with abstract art and there are lots of new things to explore if only we can forget about the mannerisms that are already engrained in us by abstraction’s short history. We can be more abstract, if we choose, and we can be more objective about what we are doing… You think it’s nearly over, I think It’s hardly begun.

    • Peter Stott said…

      Sounds like you believe in ‘the story of 20C art’, Henny Penny told Goosey Loosey etc.

  7. Patrick Jones said…

    Robin,as usual ,makes some extraordinary claims,which of course is part of his charm.Where is that great figurative art we are supposed to be competing with? And dont start with Titian Goya etc,Im talking about now.Alex Katz,Kossoff, Auerbach,Freud?I dont think so.As for Tony Caro /s greatest legacy being the Greenbergian crit? How about his extraordinary body of work,so many diverse attempts to match up to his own ideas with real,objective sculpture?Hopefully in 2014 we will move forward and begin to see the history of Abstraction as just that,because we see so much exciting new work from all groups and ages,here on this site.

  8. Peter Stott said…

    The 21C development is ‘image-as-data’, data about pictorial form, in tandem with notions of object-recognition, all the objects that might be represented by the data, a sort of objective subjectivity. The circle is not a cube, the square is not a sphere, but both the square and the circle may represent the…the…? ‘Transcendental Object’? ‘Watch this space for more developments’…

  9. JBClamence said…

    I see “objectivity” in art as merely a description of the physical stimuli that constitute the form of a work. And, as Hume adroitly pointed out, such descriptions of what is does not lead inevitably to what ought to be. So although a discerning and experienced eye can read the formal elements of a work perhaps more skillfully than someone unfamiliar with looking at art, it does not follow that “sophisticated” formalism leads to deeper experience or “truth”. Formulas for aesthetics are always bound to fail, but I hardly think that such a realization is an indictment of art as a vocation. As Newman once said, “aesthetics to me is what ornithology must mean to the birds”.

  10. Ryan said…

    “Regardless of what lies behind our instincts for art, those instincts bestow it with a transcendence of time, place, and culture. Hume noted that “the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature… the same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and London.” Though people can argue about whether the glass is half full or half empty, a universal human aesthetic can be discerned beneath the variation across cultures.” -Steven Pinker, “The Blank Slate”

    All mental events are, at root, physical processes. It’s all objective, from an objective point of view.

  11. Robin Greenwood said…

    As an adjunct to this essay I would add that if the right attempts at objectivity were to be regularly and consistently applied to the critique of new painting and sculpture, it would assist greatly towards a focus by artists upon exactly the visual values that are required by abstract art for it to progress: i.e., the invention of newer, greater and more coherent forms embodying explicit visual/physical activity. Though not all the participants might agree with me, I see this as the chief raison d’être of the ‘Brancaster Chronicles’, which have the makings of a system of peer review which attempts to advise the artist objectively of their achievements to date.

    Such deliberations upon the ‘thing that is being looked at’ and ‘what can be seen’, as opposed to suppositions about the artist’s concepts or intentions, are direct descendants of the ‘crits’ held at St. Martin’s School of Art instigated in the sixties by Anthony Caro and others. This empirical viewpoint, which may yet come to be viewed as Caro’s greatest legacy to abstract art, is a clear example of how ‘feelings’ about art were put forward into a ‘public realm’ (of sorts) in order to be tried and tested and properly ‘aired’. They may well have been, in retrospect, rather crude, unwieldy and often unwittingly destructive attempts at gaining an objective viewpoint derived from subjective feeling; but we are hardly as yet in such an advanced position even now as to enable us to look askance at what was, and still is, a radical and energizing attitude to art school teaching or art criticism generally.

    • Peter Stott said…

      For visual art to progress then the human condition needs to be taken into account i.e. 99% of form representation in images is unavailable to the recipient psyche for want of being beyond ordinary cognition, this ‘what can be seen’ needs to be ammended to take into account the relative paucity of human ‘image-form perception’. If one doesn’t accept this blindness as the starting point then there’s no hope for the future.